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Protecting yourself against skin cancer


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Recommended sun protection scheme with simple "sound bite" messages.

The days are growing longer, and the gray clouds are retreating to make way for the sun-filled days of summer. As we prepare for longer hours of daylight and outdoor activities, it's important to remember that ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun is the leading cause of skin cancer. Other sources of UV exposure that come from sun lamps and tanning beds also increase skin cancer risk. May is skin cancer awareness month and this article is dedicated to skin cancer awareness, prevention and detection, so you can learn how to minimize your risk and enjoy the sun safely.

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States. Certain types of skin cancers like basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas are slow growing and typically remain localized, while melanoma is a rapid growing skin cancer with potential to spread to other sites in the body and can be fatal. Washington is among the top 10 states with the highest incidence of melanoma. Approximately 95% of melanoma is attributable to UV exposure. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime. The risk for developing skin cancer doubles if you have more than 5 blistering sunburns. People who use a tanning bed the first time before the age of 35 increase their risk for melanoma by 75%. When detected and treated early, skin cancers, including melanoma, have a high success rate of cure.

Skin cancer can affect anyone regardless of skin color. If you think that because your skin does not burn in the sun that you are not at risk for skin cancer, think again. When skin is exposed to UV radiation from the sun, it causes an increase in the production of a pigment called melanin which acts as a filter against the sun's rays. This reaction produces a tan. Over time the sun causes damage to the DNA of these pigment producing cells and leads to freckling, age spots and, more seriously, contributes to the development of melanoma and other skin cancers. Nearly all skin cancers could be prevented by limiting unprotected exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun.

How can you decrease your risk skin cancer?

•Seek shade under an umbrella, tree or shelter before you feel the effects of the sun.

•Avoid the sun when UV rays are strongest, generally between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

•Wear protective clothing such as long sleeves and pants, when possible, and a wide brimmed hat that covers the ears and back of the neck.

•Generously apply sunscreen (SPF 30 or higher with broad spectrum protection), Ideally apply 30 minutes before going outside. Wear sunscreen on cloudy days too. Don't forget to reapply every two hours and more often when swimming or excessively sweating. You'll also want to reapply more often when doing activities on surfaces that reflect that reflect UV light like water, sand, snow and pavement. Make sure your sunscreen is not expired, out-dated sunscreen loses its protective potency.

•Wear sunglasses prevent UV damage which increases cataract formation and increase risks of ocular melanoma.

•Know the UV Index (UVI) rate. This is a rating which gives an indication of potential danger of sun exposure. The scale ranges from 1 to 11 and the higher the number, the greater the risk for UV skin damage. This information can be obtained on weather reports and apps.

What are the signs of skin cancer? Here are the mole ABCDEs.

•Asymmetry: Half of the mole is different than the other half.

•Border: Edges are notched, uneven or blurred.

•Color: The mole is uneven in color, or has shades of brown, tan and black.

•Diameter: The width is greater than 6 mm, or the size of a pencil eraser.

•Elevation and evolution: The mole is raised or changes appearance over time.

Not all cancers fit these criteria. It's important to take note of any new skin spots or growths and consult with your doctor about any moles, freckles or spots that seem unusual.

Some other skin cancer symptoms to watch for may include the following. See your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms:

•Pigmented patches or growths that grow beyond their border, are red, swell or do not heal.

•Tenderness, itching, pain or sensitivity in a bump or mole.

•A mole that changes shape, becomes scaly or bleeds.

Examine your skin on a regular basis, ideally monthly and bring any changes you notice to your doctor's attention. It is also important to see your doctor yearly for an annual physical that includes a skin exam to detect any potential skin cancers early.

Dr. Stacie Wells, ND, FAAEM is a Naturopathic Doctor & Fellow of the American Academy of Environmental Medicine. She practices at the Northwest Center for Optimal Health in  Marysville, WA. Contact her at 360-651-9355 or


Reader Comments

Marc writes:

Since this is Melanoma Awareness Month, here are facts you should be aware of: •Seventy-five percent of melanomas occur on areas of the body that are seldom or never exposed to sunlight. •In the U.S., as sun exposure has decreased by about 90% since 1935, melanoma incidence has increased by 3,000%! •As in the US, while sun exposure in Europe has profoundly decreased, there has been a spectacular increase in melanoma. More information:

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